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Inside Convene’s First London Outpost, A Big Bet On Post-Pandemic Hospitality And Work

Convene's facility at 22 Bishopsgate.

It is more than three years since Convene agreed a deal to open its first UK meeting and events venue in London. In that time, the worlds of hospitality and work have changed a little bit. 

“Luckily we hadn't started fitting out when Covid hit,” Convene Head of UK Elliott Sparsis told Bisnow on a pre-opening tour of the 50K SF space on the third and fourth floors of the 1M SF, 62-storey 22 Bishopsgate skyscraper in the City of London. “It gave us the chance to take a step back.”

Convene’s expansion to London has been a long time in the making, and it represents a significant investment for the company. It has spent £17M fitting out the space, which will offer meetings and events facilities as well as a bit of flexible workspace to businesses, with the emphasis on hospitality. 

It is a bet that in the significantly altered world of work, companies will be willing to pay to bring their staff and clients together in a venue outside of their office at least as regularly as they would have done before the pandemic — and in Sparsis’ view, even more frequently.

Speaking on the day that Convene announced Canadian department store giant Hudson’s Bay Company had recapitalised the firm, taking a majority stake in a deal that valued it at $500M, Sparsis talked through the detail that had gone into the London space — from top chefs, to smart air systems, to ergonomic chairs — as well as UK expansion plans following the HBC deal. 

Convene originally agreed to take 100K SF across four floors at AXA IM Alts' 22 Bishopsgate, London’s newest skyscraper. But plans were trimmed back to 50K SF during the pandemic, with the focus very much on hospitality, meetings and events rather than workspace, although there is about half a floor dedicated to the latter. In the U.S., Convene has 22 locations, all of which lead on meeting and events, though many feature a significant amount of flexible workspace.

Sparsis said that in London, the firm had decided to lead with a focus on meetings and events, and build out the infrastructure for that part of the business. With infrastructure in place, he said, the flexible workspace could always be added in later if the demand was there. 

In terms of that infrastructure and the personnel to run it, Convene has drawn heavily on the hospitality industry, Sparsis said: “We asked, what would it be like if you ran an office like a hotel?"

The facility at 22 Bishopsgate will have a full-time staff of 25, including four chefs and four in-house audiovisual personnel for conferences, with every element of the business undertaken in-house rather than outsourced. 

Convene's Monica Bewak, Craig Bennett, Matt Moran and Elliott Sparsis

The company hired Monica Bewak from the Rosewood hotel in London as head of sales, and Craig Bennett from the Hotel Indigo Kensington as general manager. 

“When I first came to Europe, you saw a lot of trends in the hospitality world that first occurred in the U.S. 10 years earlier,” said Berwak, who has also worked at the super-luxury George V hotel in Paris and the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles. “And what we’re doing is bringing something to London that’s not been done here before. It’s about making sure your guests are taken care of.”

Bewak added that in the hotel world, even at larger and more prestigious hotels, conferencing facilities are something of an afterthought because the rooms have a higher profit margin.

The facility has meeting and conference rooms of various sizes, the largest with capacity to hold 410 people. 

In terms of that £17M investment, Convene has focused on details large and small. About 40K SF has been tiled rather than carpeted to give it a cleaner and more modern look. Corridors are extra wide because moving 400 people at once from a conference room to the area where they’ll be eating could easily create a bottleneck. 

The facility has a smart airflow system, pumping extra fresh air into rooms on top of that provided by the building’s ventilation system, to ensure people aren’t dozing off and mental performance remains high. It is smart in the sense that it knows when people have moved from one room to another, and redirects air accordingly, saving energy and money. 

To avoid the sore bum and bad experience sitting at an event for hours can create, Convene has allocated a significant part of its investment to Vitra ergonomic chairs.

“No one ever leaves an event and talks about the AV,” Sparisis said. “They talk about the food, they take pictures of it, it’s what people remember.”

With that in mind Matt Moran, head chef at the Hoxton Hotel group, has been hired as Convene’s London head chef, leading a team of four who will work from a fully equipped commercial kitchen.

Convene is planning as many as five facilities in London.

For now, various data points indicate that return-to-work, particularly in city centre locations like the City of London, is plateauing after a post-omicron rise. But Sparsis said he thinks the new patterns of work and office usage could be a boost for Convene.

“We’re seeing companies that would previously have booked space once a year for a town hall meeting book six times a year,” he said. “Companies and chief executives want to bring people together under one roof as often as possible, and they see the benefit of using us to do that.”

That said, one of the major changes to the London fit-out brought about by the pandemic is the need to make meetings and conference facilities fit for purpose in a world of hybrid work.

Each meeting room is equipped with a gadget that functions as a camera, speaker and microphone, as well as large flatscreens, to facilitate hybrid meetings.

In conference rooms, smart cameras mounted into the ceilings track the speakers on stage as they move about so they don’t roam out of shot and events can be live-streamed to up to 10,000 viewers at any one time. The rooms have their own data system to ensure they are not competing for WiFi space with other users. 

With the first London facility due to open in early May after four years of planning, what next for Convene in London? It had originally planned a second facility in the 80 Fenchurch Street development elsewhere in the City, but pulled out of that deal during the pandemic. 

Sparsis said the deal with HBC gave it renewed capacity to expand in London, adding it was looking to build a portfolio of around five locations totalling about 500K SF in the UK capital over the next three years or so.

A big part of HBC’s deal will see Convene open space in department stores the company owns in the U.S., including Saks. In London, however, the focus is more likely to be opening space in new developments where it can create bespoke facilities. 

“There’s £18B spent on large meetings and events annually,” Sparsis said. “We know what the current inventory is, so we think that 500K SF is sufficient to meet the demand that is out there.”